With its oil production already reaching pre-Trump era levels, Tehran is linking full compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) to the delisting of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) by the US State Department. As part of his “maximum pressure” policy against Iran, the Trump administration for the first time named another country’s military entity – the IRGC – as a terrorist group on April 8, 2019. Iran responded by inconsequentially designating all US military forces as a “terrorist organization.”
Since both the United States and Iran are walking back to the pre-Trump period, it would seem that the IRGC branding as a FTO must go as well. The situation on this matter is much more complicated than it appears. The IRGC, which does not report to the president but only to the supreme leader, is not known to be a transparent player. Lifting the IRGC’s FTO branding based on Iran’s “public guarantee to de-escalate” will not satisfy the US administration, Congress nor Iran’s Arab neighbors. The trust deficit over the IRGC’s actions extends to major European powers too.
A rescission of the FTO designation means the lifting of immigration restrictions on the IRGC’s current and former members and anyone ever affiliated with it in any other way from entering the United States. In addition, anyone found knowingly providing material support or resources to the IRGC will not be liable to face criminal proceedings unless he or she falls under the jurisdiction of a host of other sanctions that Iran and its elite military branch are subject to. The step to designate the IRGC as a FTO was designed to deter states and companies from engaging in business with it, which has deep inroads in Iran’s economy. The IRGC was first designated by the Treasury Department in October 2007 under the counterproliferation authorities of Executive Order (E.O) 13382. That action also designated the IRGC’s Quds Force branch — though not the IRGC overall — as a terrorist group under E.O. 13224.
In light of the aforementioned, if the IRGC will not be free of sanctions completely, then what will Iran achieve from its FTO rescission?
The IRGC has always been a redline for the Iranian government because of its close proximity to the supreme leader. Going ahead with reviving the JCPOA without revoking the IRGC’s label as a FTO will be viewed as a major betrayal by the “hardliners,” with the Iranian government expected to face major defiance and opposition if this was to happen.
The Biden administration is beset with a rather similar quandary. The US president and his Democratic Party must be ready to pay some political cost as the media and the Republican Party will portray the IRGC’s FTO delisting as an enormous concession to Iran, one that will eventually lead to its free access to the global market and banking system. A group of 80 Congress members have already written to the US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken informing him that they “are united in strong opposition to any move to legitimize the IRGC’s reckless, destabilizing, and antisemitic actions through the Middle East.” Any new nuclear deal with Iran will have to be placed before the Senate, in which there is some parity between the Democrats and Republicans in terms of numbers. For the White House, any new nuclear deal with Iran will not be easy to sell within the Democratic Party let alone getting Republicans on board.
Iran desires to damage the credibility of Washington’s power projection through sanctions by revoking the IRGC’S FTO classification, if successful, the United States will be seen as softening its position on a terrorist entity. Iran’s stringent position in the nuclear talks has been to delink all issues concerning human rights, militancy, terrorism, or its missile program from the talks. Tehran’s quagmire stemming from its inability to proceed without the supreme leader’s and the IRGC’s nod may stall the revival of the nuclear deal for the foreseeable future. All the while, Iran will continue to enrich uranium in larger quantities and beyond 60 percent, hence shortening its nuclear breakout time even more.
If the Biden administration finds a way to win the support of lawmakers to revive the nuclear deal including the IRGC’S FTO delisting, will Iran agree to a mechanism to assess the IRGC’s non-involvement in proxy wars across the Middle East and elsewhere? Bridging the trust gap with Iran is a herculean task, especially when the likes of Hezbollah’s and al-Hashd al-Shaabi’s existence solely depends upon the IRGC’s financing and military assistance. While the sanctions hold, Iran has expanded its oil production to pre-Trump levels as reports of sanction-busting activities deepen suspicions about its activities in the future when some key restrictions will be removed.